Antwerp’s city hall turns 450

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Antwerp’s stadhuis (city hall) turns 450 years old this year and the city is having a year-long celebration to mark the occasion. The monumental building facing the Grote Markt opened its doors on February 27, 1565, and has been in continuous use ever since. It’s the only city hall on the UNESCO World Heritage List that is still serving its original function.

The city of Antwerp had already planned to build a new stadhuis in the early part of the sixteenth century. A 1540 design by Domien De Waghemakere was approved but never realized when funds and building materials were diverted to the reinforcement of the city’s defenses. Antwerp’s city hall might have looked very different, judging from De Waghemakere’s design for the city hall of Ghent, built between 1519 and 1539 in an ornate late-Gothic style.

A second design was commissioned in 1560 from a team of architects led by Cornelis Floris De Vriendt. The new design combined elements of traditional Flemish architecture with Italian Renaissance influences, resulting in a completely new style. The horizontal lines and simple rectangular windows recall the medieval warehouses that were common in the port town, but the addition of an ornate, central tower as well as the use of pink marble, sandstone and limestone give the facade a richness and grandeur.

The central facade is decorated with the coats of arms of Phillip II of Spain, Hapsburg ruler of the Southern Netherlands at the time, and of the Duchy of Brabant and the Margrave of Antwerp. A statue of Brabo, the legendary founder of the city, in the central niche was replaced in 1586 by a statue of the Virgin Mary. Two other statues depict allegorical figures of Justice and Prudence. The rounded arches on the ground floor once gave access to shops, whose rent helped defray the cost of the construction.

The new city hall had only been in use for a few years when it was set ablaze by rioting Spanish troops in 1576. Only the outer walls survived—the roof and interior were completely destroyed. Two hundred years later, French troops again looted and burned the building. In the nineteenth century, the interior underwent an extensive renovation which resulted in its current appearance.

Having survived the Spanish Fury, the wars of the Hapsburgs, the French Revolution and more, the venerable stadhuis is now succumbing to the ravages of time, weather and wear. The planned renovation will address climate control issues, repair damage to the historic décor, and adapt the interior to modern use. The cost is estimated to be around 30 million euros.

I recently had the chance to visit the stadhuis on one of the guided tours offered by the city to mark its 450-year anniversary. The ticketed tours are already completely sold out through February 2016. New tours have been added on Wednesday afternoons but tickets for those are also going fast. I’m thrilled to have had the chance to see the interior before it’s closed to the public for renovations.

The most sumptuous rooms are located on the first floor, called the Schoon Verdiep–a literal translation into Dutch of the French bel étage. The central hallway, accessed via a double staircase from the ground floor, is a breathtaking 19th-century Flemish Renaissance Revival gallery lined with marble columns and painted murals. This was originally an open courtyard in the center of the building, but it’s now covered with a stained-glass roof.

The mayor’s office, assembly rooms and Wedding Hall are all accessed via the Schoon Verdiep. The council chamber has an original ceiling painted in 1713 to commemorate the Peace of Utrecht. The Small Leys Hall has wall paintings that decorated the home of Antwerp artist Hendrik Leys, who also painted the murals in the Reception Room. The Wedding Hall is decorated with murals depicting marriage ceremonies throughout history. Each room is more spectacular than the last.

Even without a ticket for a guided tour, you can still access the Schoon Verdiep, although most of the rooms are not open to the public. There’s a popup café on the first floor, at one end of the hall, that’s open on the weekends through February 2016. And there’s an exhibition on the ground floor about the history of the stadhuis that’s free of charge. If you’re in Antwerp this year, don’t miss this chance to visit an amazing historical monument.

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